Queering the Word

by Matthew A. Jonassaint

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I came out as “gay” recently.

At my job, which is at a youth crisis shelter, which is to say I came out to a youth I was working with. He sat across from me clutching his shirt sleeves, his head bowed low. I think he was midway to 17. He’d marked the “gay, bisexual, or other” section of the paperwork. He also marked that he’d been abused at home, bullied at school, and had a plan to kill himself. Another staff was starting his case chart, I was just in the office for something else. Since this kid had checked in, he’d said hardly three words all evening. It’s been almost eight years since the first time I told a total stranger I liked other guys. (Come to think of it, that was also at work.) But when I said the words “I’m gay” to this taciturn teen, it was like hey, time’s up. It’s finally happened. You give in or you give up.

I mean that I struggled with the name. If it’s an identity, a category, a label, a word, in the end it’s also a name. Long have I struggled. This “out” moment came in the culmination of many crossings intersecting with others. Among them, the Orlando shootings I’d hardly time to mourn (when that came, it was in a peculiar dream) because they fell on the weekend of my mourning for a close friend, four years dead. That’s another story and will be told some other time, yet it’s relevant—it’s the story of a friendship. For my little life orbits within and around the fiery contact of a few friendships with other guys, always “straight,” connections with clout appearing on levels both cosmic and minimal, totally prevalent, and inescapable. And maybe it’s true that the history of friendship is the last unfinished chapter of same-sex dynamics, the story still being written.
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The horrible thing for me about what happened in Orlando is it forced me to see the banality of my own or any Gay Agenda. Some people I know have stated, elated, “We have won, after gay marriage we’ve finally made it, we have victory, we’ve been accepted…” To have such death, such loss, on such a scale, to happen after the victory is over. Can this happen to anybody. I think we can ask more questions about ourselves, like what else is possible. What more can it mean to be peculiar in the average ordinary everydayness of our lives, all lives?
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The banality was emphasized for me shortly before this “out” moment. While riding bikes with a friend, he recounted a party he’d been to the night before. He’s a smart fish, and he hangs a hammer-and-sickle flag on his wall, and he was out of his usual depths at this party. The air felt tense like when a bad racist joke is just waiting to happen. At one point someone took out a Beatles record to play, and this immediately drew a routine series of vetoes and boos. “Dude turns around,” said my friend, “clearly sorta panicked, and goes, ‘Why, were they fags?'”
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Suddenly I started laughing. So long and hard my friend had to stop telling his story, and half in surprise half in discomfort ask why I, his Gay Black friend, would find this funny. It took some explaining for me to realize this person was not joking, was in fact alarmed he might be promoting homosexuality by playing a Beatles record. This ignorance is comedy on one level but I found it hilarious because of something else. I fall on a certain side of the like/dislike Beatles debate, but I think people hate the Beatles precisely because they were fags: posh and well-dressed, self-obsessed, maybe confusingly popular. I don’t know if I don’t see a problem with that.
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Gayness, I’ve maintained, is a sensibility; perhaps it can be called a lifestyle, but it’s Life style. It’s feeling. I’m talking about sushi bars, or whipped cream on your cupcake. Firework shows, baby foxes. The salty smell at the beach. The particular shade of red on stage curtains. Wearing new shoes for the first time. The voice of Chuck Jackson on “Any Day Now,” Amy Winehouse’s mascara, or Daniel Craig’s mouth slightly pursing as he calls himself Bond, James Bond. Anything grand—or desperately trying to be, anything wide-eyed with being alive, is where being gay comes from (in me). It’s an excess that’s somehow not unnecessary, or redundant. To be gay is to feel high and huge on the tender details adorning life. Usually yours.
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Not everyone would define their gayness in this way. I’m no expert, words are free-roaming critters anyway. I won’t pretend we should take back “the old way of meaning gay as being happy.” But it’s an idea. We live in uncertain times (like the last times), and perhaps the most revolutionary thing is feeling gay, loving life itself in all its wonderful weird beauty. Having happiness and hope, though that doesn’t mean we don’t think critically at the same time. We’re in a moment when it’s more important than ever that we re-visit and re-value our values. And when words have value, they have currency, evoking responses and connections with others when used. If we choose.
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I’d never been faced with a choice like that before, until that night at work. This suicidal teenager teetering on the edge of becoming another statistic, and me just thinking maybe reciprocity is more important than sticking to my old resistance, like I once needed to know there were others like me. For that moment, it was a word for a feeling of faith, or connection, or both. I brought myself to say it quickly, then it was over. “I’m gay.” And he looked up.
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Matthew A. Jonassaint has worked with at-risk youth in Provo for just over two years. He’s been published in peculiar, as well as with the Rock Canyon poets and Pillars of Salt. His favorite summer read has been Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita, his favorite record Time Fades Away by Neil Young. This fall, he’ll live in Spain doing a high school teaching gig, and you’ll probably be able to read about it soon somewhere.
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“Once When I Was 12 It Took Me an Hour to Read Through 1st Nephi Ch 1” by Alyssa Pyper

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“Once When I Was 12 It Took Me an Hour to Read Through 1st Nephi Ch 1”
by Alyssa Pyper

I, Nephi, having been born..having been, I, Nephi, having been born of goodly parents, been born of goodly parents, therefore I was taught somewhat in all the learning of my father; of my father; taught somewhat in all the learning of my father; and having seen many afflictions…of my father—

I, Nephi, having been born of goodly parents, therefore I was taught, been born of goodly parents, therefore I was taught, was taught, therefore I was taught, somewhat in all the learning of my father; and having seen many afflictions in the course of my days, nevertheless, having been highly favored of the Lord, of the Lord, having been highly favored of the Lord, in all my days; yea, having had a great knowledge of the goodness and the mysteries of God, having—had—a—great—knowledge—therefore I make a record of my proceedings in my days—

i was afraid something bad would happen to me if i didn’t read it just right

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Check out our recent Q&A with Alyssa Pyper and order the latest copy of peculiar online.

Q&A with Featured Writer: Alyssa Pyper

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For our third print issue of peculiar, we chose Alyssa Pyper as our Featured Writer because of her humble authenticity and the way she uses not just the words but spacing, shape, and repetition to transform her writing into something no one else can replicate. She truly is an artist, often expressing herself through music as well—specifically the violin. Alyssa was kind enough to take a pause between concert gigs to answer some questions about poetry and life.

When did you start writing poetry?

I was dating this girl a couple summers back. During that summer I found out that she was moving out of state to finish her schooling come fall. I was crushed. She was always making me the most beautiful cards and collages, leaving things here and there for me, flowers at the doorstep, etc. It was lovely. When I began to process the fact that she’d be leaving, I worked it out in writing. I was an avid journalist as a teenager but I’d never pursued any creative pieces or written anything for anyone…her endless gifts to me of things she’d created inspired me, and I ended up writing her some sappy/tenderhearted lines about the fact that she was leaving. That fall, I enrolled in my first creative writing class at Utah Valley University.

Why do you write poetry?

I have a need to create. I was always creating as a kid, painting pictures, making films with friends…my best friend and I even had our own film company called “Kid Productions”—slogan, Let’s Play! (Pretty cute and clever, right!? Also, yes, we really did!) I was always making meaning in relation to my friends and family through creating.

As a teenager I kept a lot of things bottled up. I was scared of my experiences, didn’t know why I cared so much about the girl in my 8th grade choir class, why I wanted her approval so badly, why it all bothered me so much. I was excelling in the world of classical violin and spent most of my time outside school learning concertos and waking up for Saturday morning orchestra rehearsals. I put all of my creative, anxious energies into music. This training has been invaluable to me, but I came to a point at 19 when I realized I could not thrive within a classical frame for much longer. There was something else I needed to be doing. People came along who helped me open up and be comfortable with simple acts of self-expression and sharing in my day to day life. I met friends and integrated into communities who helped me to own my lived experience. This openness has translated into a deeper need to continue creating and synthesizing my lived experience into works of music and writing.

What poets do you yourself read?

Well, I can tell you what’s on my shelf right now: 4 Anne Carson books, Ali Smith’s How to be Both, several books on Jungian psychology, a book on chakras, Leap by Terry Tempest Williams, a couple of local zines including the first edition of Pillars of Salt [go check out the zine community on Facebook and Instagram], a copy of Pigs When They Straddle The Air by local author/professor Julie Nichols [BUY HER BOOK AND READ IT, NOW], Night Sky With Exit Wounds by Ocean Vuong, The Queer Art of Failure, Flight From Neveryon

I actually probably read psychology books more often than I read poetry! I think it’s a life-phase sort of thing, though I find it fascinating and it often propels a lot of my work forward…but I also really gravitate toward narrative nonfiction, confessional poetry, historical fiction (esp. if its queer or local or both), experimental texts… though I’m not that good at reading from cover to cover. I’m lucky if that happens. More often than not I grab a couple lines here and there, or finish a few chapters and then pick up a different book the next time, only to circle back to the first…I carry a backpack with me wherever I go because I hate being without an extra shirt or pair of socks etc. if I want to change or if the temperature changes, and I pack a couple books too, choice of book always dependent on my mood that day…keyword being mood, because everything revolves around that. (I have to joke about it but it’s real. Haha.)

What’s your writing process?

In some ways I’m always “brainstorming”—thinking about the symbols, underlying connections and storylines of my every day experiences. I’ve always been pretty pensive. My actual output is varied, much like my attempts at reading. Sometimes I can sit down and flesh something out quickly, consistently, and walk away with a polished piece a few hours later. But most of the time, I’m just thinking, jotting notes and phrases so I don’t forget them. Whether music or poetry, I’ll often develop a general concept or structure that I want to explore for a piece, and then I’ll work to fill in the details over a period of days and weeks and months. 

What inspires you to write?

Experience is what keeps me writing. It’s definitely self-centered and it’s all about processing my feelings and thoughts.

Recently I’ve been obsessed over Merrill Garbus’s work with her band Tune-Yards, as well as Annie Clark & hers in ST Vincent. I’m inspired by countless mentors in my life—amazing professors at UVU who write and create and teach authentically and give me permission to do the same…kindhearted therapists and healers who have shared their strength and caring with me…so many badass friends starting their own collectives, zines, and journals to foster community and give voice to those who need it. You all give me strength.

What’s your favorite thing you’ve ever written? 

I’ve been really liking a lot of the things I’ve been writing lately. I’m getting comfortable with my processes—how and when to push myself, when to rest. I’m working on a full length album that I’ll be releasing in the fall. I’m really excited about it. Musically this album is experimental chamber folk. Lyrically it’s like poetry. I used to just kind of throw down the first lyrics that I thought of for a song, but I’ve been a bit more selective about how the lyrics and narratives are crafted in this project. This album is the culmination of a lot of work and growing I’ve been doing over the past few years, musically, emotionally, spiritually. I think in general, I really like what I’m writing when I’m writing it, and I look forward to writing more in the future—changing my parameters, exploring new ideas, methods of execution, etc. I used to be afraid that I’d run out of ideas or “write my best thing” and then wither away. I’ve been fascinated and fueled by the idea of possibility lately. I think it’s endless. I will always have ways to push myself and to explore. I think that’s pretty great.

What effect do you hope your writing will have on people? 

I hope to put out what I’ve been grateful to receive. Authenticity. Love of sound, love of words. Connection. Sharing experience honestly is so important to me. Learning to use my voice is so important to me. It’s a process I’m humbled to be a part of.

Where do you see yourself in the future?

Performing, mentoring, writing, collaborating. Resting.

What’s it like being gay in Utah?

I keep trying to leave! I’ve lived here my whole life and I tire of the heaviness of it. I’m a Mormon girl at heart and I just want to love another Mormon girl. No matter how I approach that, it’s never easy.

But I also love this valley and I have grown to understand that Utah is a place like any other, with its own set of prevalent cultural norms. Some of those norms are infuriating and hurtful and exhausting. But I’ve met so many incredible people navigating their way around it just like me, and I find needed understanding there.

I think a lot of things are changing and growing and expanding in Utah on a cultural level. I’d like to experience being in other places, but I’ve come to accept that Utah Valley will never really leave me. I feel a very strong sense of connection to my home.

What makes you peculiar?

LOL. Idk. I only wear certain colors. I change my outfit multiple times during the day depending on my mood. I was obsessed with Pinocchio as a four-year-old and even dressed up as Pinocchio for Halloween. I watched the movie again a couple years ago and I don’t know why I wasn’t scared of it! But it’s actually a pretty powerful story of rebirth and growth…so I find my childhood obsession with Pinocchio quite peculiar and lovely.

pinnochio

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To experience Alyssa’s music, follow her artist page on Facebook  or visit her Bandcamp website. Her new album will be released in the fall. She also plays with the folk band Quiet House.
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Her poetry can be found in the first and third issues of peculiar, available for purchase online.